- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
When news of the union of Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus broke, along with an upcoming tour it was just a matter of where to go and catch them perform live. With no run through the southernmost states, it may not have seemed genius to fly from a perfectly sunny Florida winter day to Wisconsin and a mid-teens forecast. But not knowing whether this run of dates would get extended or not, you gotta pack up your meager winter wardrobe and get on the plane.
With the promise of an overnight few inches of snow, when Lucy Dacus came on stage alone and bravely sang a brand new song to an already packed house the question of whether this northern adventure was a wise one was instantly answered.
The three performers each had their own solo sets and then appeared together under the boygenius moniker, overall pushing the four hour mark. Lucy Dacus performed first and along with the new song she played several songs with her band from this year’s outstanding Historian album. Her vocals are a marvel, from the piercingly crystalline to the more powerful - she has an amazing gift and full control over it. Dacus’ band joined her going from the quiet solo moment to a crackling take on ‘Addictions’. Spending the most time on stage for the night, violinist Camille Faulkner joined in on the swirling ‘The Shell’ where Dacus’ vocals were again frightfully composed. The stripped down ‘Pillar of Truth’ written for her grandmother who was “raised in the age of the milkman” was all heart. While the closing pair of songs showed that Dacus is comfortable rocking out on an incendiary ‘Night Shift’ or alone with her guitarist she can gently remove your heart on the atmospheric ‘Historians’. The image of Dacus, without an instrument, singing with hands folded sticks with you.
In case you didn’t think Phoebe Bridgers was already cool enough, she and her band came on stage to the opening strains of Tom Waits’ ‘Heartattack and Vine’. Bridgers and her five piece band, including Faulkner on violin, waded through a slowed down ‘Smoke Signals’ before drummer, Marshall Vore, joined her on vocals for ‘Funeral’. Cracking that she was going to lighten the mood with a song about domestic violence, guitarist Harrison Whitford on lap steel shared vocal duties on ‘Would You Rather’. Vore and Whitford are integral parts of Bridgers’ delicately balanced compositions, with Vore’s high harmonies particularly standing out. The trio was especially devastating on ‘Killer’ with Vore harmonizing while Whitford led the song on steel. Bridgers herself stood stark on the stage without guitar fully embodying the song. Bridgers and Vore then stood alone at the mic, her welcoming him with a sly “hello darkness my old friend.” The duo played a spot on cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything is Free’, before Bridgers demo’d a new song. The group closed with a beautiful take on ‘Scott Street, where apparently everyone is growing up. The band that was getting married is now having babies with the updated lyrics and who knows how much longer Vore will be packing out his own drum kit. An amazing and evolving song. Bridgers’ live set was already mesmerizing as it was, but for the larger crowd on hand it was easily elevated to the environment with plenty of different shadings along the way.
Seeing Julien Baker for the third time, she continues to evolve as both a singer and guitarist (her guitar board has more pedals than the Tour de France and she appeared to use them all). Not only that, she has migrated to piano as well where some of her most powerful songs of the night were performed. Being a solo artist, Baker’s set benefitted the most from Faulkner’s violin accompaniment in many spots. The loop and quiet pings of ‘Sprained Ankle’ stood out early in the set, while the following ‘Everybody Does’ showed more muscle. The spare ‘Rejoice’ had Baker at her most raw and vulnerable while takes of ‘Televangelist’ and ‘Hurt Less’ on piano with Faulkner’s accompaniment were both show stoppers. But Faulkner’s emotive tone on ‘Something’ made that song the highlight of Baker’s set. The closing ‘Appointments’ had Baker setting effects in motion with tapes and loops swirling while she cut the mix on piano. It was a spectacular close to a stunning set showcasing her vocal control and instrumental prowess.
After a final short break, Dacus, Bridgers, and Baker reappeared as boygenius to play all six tracks off their EP accompanied by a changing cast of band members. With Baker on mandolin, the opening ‘Souvenir’ was a beautifully spare and simple take on her composition. The opening notes of Dacus’ ‘Bite the Hand’ brought a big roar of recognition from the crowd, while Whitford’s pedal steel took Bridgers’ ‘Me and My Dog’ to the lofty heights the song pursues. But it was on the two closing numbers that the genius of the group’s impromptu name took hold. The final moments of ‘Salt In The Wound’ had Dacus and Bridgers (who somewhat unexpectedly can really belt it out when the moment calls for it) sharing full out vocals before dropping to their knees in “we’re not worthy” bows to each other and then to Baker who saved her best guitar work of the night for this moment. But as much firepower as ‘Salt In The Wound’ had, the perfect closer to both the night and their EP proved to be ‘Ketchum, ID’. With Bridgers strumming lightly on acoustic guitar the trio finally congregated together at the front of the stage to sing the entire song off mic. The Sylvee is a cavernous sound stage of a venue so to witness 2000 plus fans stand stock still and silent while they performed the song was incredible. I’ve seen many artists do this over the years, but never in a club this large with a song so spare. Though invited to sing along, the crowd only joined in on the choruses and then at a whisper. Dacus’ voice cut most clearly through the air singing of breaking up the band and moving to Idaho. The last chorus of the song ended as a dusting of snow began to fall outside.
Dacus unwittingly summed the night up best in the show’s opening moments. After trying out her new song, there was some confusion around a fan saying something about a “keeper”. Dacus wasn’t quite sure whether the fan meant the song was a keeper or, after thinking about it, that Dacus herself was a keeper. The answer to whether it’s the song or the artist is yes. Each of these talented songwriters is certainly a keeper and the night was full of carefully composed and performed songs that fit that bill equally well. Hopefully they make more music together down the line and find a way to bring this touring show to more cities. Was it worth a journey north to a state we’d never been to where we were greeted with a blast of frigid temperatures? Absolutely.
All photos: Christa Joyner Moody